Ballet schools ‘stifling’ young dancers says top star

Marie-Agnes Gillot, one of the world's most admired contemporary dancers, overcame a double scoliosis to become the star dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet
AFP

Paris (AFP) – Elite ballet schools are “stifling” dancers creativity and need to rethink how they handle young talents, one of the world’s top ballerinas has warned.

Marie-Agnes Gillot, who overcame a double scoliosis to become the star dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet, said some schools have trouble dealing with talented pupils and end up crushing their personalities.

“I would develop children’s curiosity by bringing them to the theatre to see great actors… or even to fashion shows where they’ve made clothes out of bin bags so that they have creativity in them instead of just commands and orders all the time,” the star, who is taking her final bow on Saturday, told AFP.

“We need to work so that they do not lose their personalities and their creativity, because actually we are stifling the children,” she added.

Gillot — who is regarded as the last great French ballerina of her generation — insisted her comments were not criticism of anyone at the prestigious Paris Opera Ballet school, from which she graduated.

But the dancer, one of the world’s most admired contemporary dancers despite having had to wear a corset until she was 18, said there needed to be change in ballet education.

“We cannot break 10,000 children for one little prodigy. We have to cherish their imagination and not rein it in,” she told Paris Match earlier.

“Things are more relaxed now (in the Paris school) than they were in my day but still we have a lot to do to bring it up to date,” she said.

Gillot said critics’ complaints that there were now so few dancers with “personality” may be linked to the way dancers are drilled.

– Lacking ‘personality’ –

“You can be a great dancer but without personality,” she said.

“I think we have a hard time managing exceptional people in France who have a lot of energy, who have strong minds, who have abnormal abilities. And not just in ballet.

“They don’t know how to manage that and so as a result it hurts.”

Gillot said she suffered because of her talent, not making principal dancer until the relatively late age of 28.

“I was too talented and they would not accept any mistakes from me. They were super tough with me but with the middling types they said, ‘Don’t worry, we will let you through.’

“No one ever gave me a free pass,” she said. “People before me who fell (during their final test) and people after too went on to be principal dancers while I could not make the smallest mistake. The merest weakness on stage and they would not allow me to pass.”

Gillot was finally named prima ballerina in 2004, the first time a dancer was ever promoted in Paris for dancing a modern piece, Carolyn Carlson’s “Signes”.

The great French dancer and choreographer Maurice Bejart said that for years he had urged the ballet to make her a principal, saying “she was the best, and finally they decided.”

Gillot said that until she “ran away to New York” she was not given the roles she felt she deserved.

Tall and with a swimmer’s physique, she said was outside the often narrowly defined idea of how a ballerina should look.

“I’ve been described with adjectives like athletic, tall, atypical, rebel and punk since I was very little. But I don’t see it!” she laughed.

“I see myself as a good soldier with a lot of discipline who has embraced all types of dance and never given either classical or contemporary a priority.”

Gillot, 42, the only female French choreographer to have created a work for the Paris Opera Ballet, will bow out after dancing “Orpheus and Eurydice” on Saturday night.

She said she had spent the last three months tearfully “grieving” her exit from an institution where she has spent most of her life. “Now I just want to get on with it,” she laughed. 

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